December 19, 2012

'There was a golf ball coming out my cheek'

In 2007, Craig Cumming had his face rearranged by a Dale Steyn short ball. He looks back at the incident that more or less ended his international career

Craig Cumming jokes that he used to look like Brad Pitt. In one sickening instant*, Dale Steyn changed that.

It was after lunch on day two of the second Test in Centurion in 2007. Cumming and Lou Vincent were feeling the best they had against the lethal South African attack that had humiliated them the week before.

"We were well and truly beaten in the first Test - just knocked over by a bowling attack that was too aggressive for what we were prepared for," Cumming told ESPNcricinfo. "The first hour and a half of the second Test felt that way again, but then we got through to lunch and I actually felt like I was batting and not just trying to survive.

"Maybe that was my downfall, because I was trying to be more positive and more aggressive and I was looking to score runs."

Steyn banged one in short. Cumming thought he knew what to do. "The pull and hook were shots I played through my career. I played them a lot when I first started playing Test cricket and I was successful with it.

"But Dale was quick, and I found the ball hard to pick up because it got on you a lot quicker than you thought. Before I knew it, I was taking off my helmet with a bit of blood pumping out my face. There was a golf ball coming out my cheek.

"I was gutted because I was finally scoring some runs. It was like when I used to play rugby and would donk heads with someone. It was that horrible feeling. I had actually just had an operation where I had had three implants put in my teeth because I had had them teeth knocked out fielding, and my first concern was for those and whether they were still there."

Teeth? Intact. Cheek? Not so much.

Cumming had a dent carved into the right side of his face, which needed urgent patching up before he could be taken to hospital. When he got there, x-rays revealed a depressed fracture of the cheekbone and a broken jaw. He would need surgery, and because he was diabetic, intensive care too. Under the knife, he had six plates put into his cheek and one above his eye to hold his face together. "The most painful part of the whole process was getting stitches in the cut before I went to hospital. The rest didn't hurt at all. I actually haven't had a headache from it yet."

Three days later he was released from hospital. "Stephen Fleming came to pick me up and his words were, 'Well, at least they haven't spilt coffee on the Mona Lisa.'" Not quite Brad Pitt then.

On a bicycle at the gym the next day, Cumming was already trying to put the incident behind him. Sadly his international career would go the same way: Cumming only played two more Tests and one ODI.

But when he returned to the crease two weeks after the injury, he felt little fear. "I remember the opening bowler bowled me a bouncer and I cut it over point for four. That relaxed me a little. That was the only bouncer he bowled to me. Then I went to play Bangladesh. Mentally I did a lot of work but my technique wasn't right and that got shown up in that series."

Cumming went on to "redefine" his stance at the crease because of the accident. "My front foot used to want to go forward and across and I spent my whole career trying to stop it. I just started creating a little bit of a back-and-across, a little bit like Jacques Kallis or AB de Villiers, and what I found was that as soon as the ball is bowled, I could stand still and by being able to stand still, it just opened up so many more areas. I just wish I had done it a little bit earlier or got an opportunity to play international cricket with it, because I think I was a far better player because of it."

For the next four seasons, Cumming averaged 65.33, 61.60, 51.00 and 37.52 in first-class cricket. He also scored 12 centuries. He enjoyed the "best years of his career" but was not considered for New Zealand again.

"Steyn has got a little delay with his wrist when he bowls the ball and you don't get a clean look at it when it's released. I put him down as one of the hardest bowlers I have ever had to face"

"Skill-wise I was good enough, but it taught me that you are only as good as someone's opinion of you. That's the reality of sport."

Cumming retired at the end of the 2011-12 season, a satisfied man with no regrets. "This will be my first summer without cricket, but in the 19 years I played, it's given me a huge amount of great experiences, so I am only ever thankful. I am doing a bit of commentary now, and in a wee while can give stuff back to cricket. I have two young boys, aged nine and seven, and I'm doing a bit of coaching, which is very challenging but very fun."

Cumming credits Steyn with helping him get the most out of the latter years of his career, and had a chance to thank the man behind the "angry eyes" himself during the Champions League when Otago and the Royal Challengers Bangalore qualified for the tournament.

"The day after the match we enjoyed a few beers out by the pool with Dale, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher. We got the opportunity to talk through it and it was really nice. I made him pay for a couple because of what he'd done to me," Cumming said.

To Cumming, Steyn typifies the mean fast bowler: unforgiving on the field but a completely different person off it. "Shane Bond is exactly the same," Cumming said. "Off the park he is an absolute gentleman but he hit me a couple of times and he hit a couple of batters around the world. To be a successful fast bowler, you've got to have that."

In the 2007-08 series, Cumming's face wasn't the only thing Steyn made an impact on. He took ten wickets in each Test and announced himself on the international stage. Before the series, in 13 Tests, Steyn had taken 51 wickets at an average of 30.33. His promise had been obvious but he was yet to deliver on it. After the series, Cumming and the rest of the world knew what Steyn was really about.

"He wasn't out-and-out pace. He was in the mid-140s - and when you face Brett Lee and those guys, they were in the 150s - but his ability to swing the ball made him different," Cumming said. "He has got a little delay with his wrist when he bowls the ball and you don't get a clean look at the ball when it's released. It is quite hard to pick up. I put him down as one of the hardest bowlers I have ever had to face for those reasons."

At the start of New Zealand's 2012-13 tour of South Africa, Steyn has 299 Test wickets. The touring batsmen will no doubt be wary of him. Cumming thinks New Zealand are most likely to be able to match South Africa in the T20s, for which Steyn will possibly be rested.

"South Africa haven't done as well as they could have liked to and that could be a real opportunity. We don't have Ross Taylor or Dan Vettori or Jesse Ryder but we still have one of the best T20 batsman in the world in Brendon McCullum," Cumming said.

Having played under McCullum at Otago, Cumming believes his captaincy skills will unite the squad. "He is a fantastic leader. There is some really young talent and some really good talent and he will make them feel confident and will give them an opportunity to go out and be themselves. We never expected England to beat the All Blacks two weeks ago, so you never know. A wounded Kiwi is a dangerous one."

*contains violent imagery

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent